x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Poor image robs Sudan of tourism windfall

As Egypt hostage crisis deepens, neighbour nation bemoans its own reputation for danger that limits visitor numbers to 60,000 a year.

The pyramids of Meroe are among the monuments that Sudan hopes will attract tourists.
The pyramids of Meroe are among the monuments that Sudan hopes will attract tourists.

MEROE, SUDAN // A dozen 2,000-year-old pyramids rise out of the orange sand like a jagged row of teeth. In the soft sandstone bricks of these ancient tombs, the Nubian people carved pictures of the God Amun with the body of a man and the head of a bird.

On a scorching 41-degree day here in the Nubian Desert, this ruined capital of the ancient Kushitic Kingdom is nearly vacant. Two men with camels wait to give rides to the rare tourist. But the car park is empty. No one is around to buy the carved replicas of the pyramids that a few dusty-haired boys are peddling. Like Egypt, its neighbour to the north, Sudan has amazing archaeological sites, including pyramids, ruins of cities and ancient temples. Sudan also has game parks teeming with elephants, lions and hippos rivalling those in Kenya.

Unlike Egypt or Kenya, which attract millions of tourists each year, Sudan brings in a meagre 60,000 visitors annually and is missing out on a windfall in tourism revenue. A reputation as an unstable country and a trade embargo have kept all but the most intrepid travellers away. In the Musawwarat temple, a collection of columns and walls intricately carved with pictures of lions and elephants, two Dutch tourists are the only people visiting the archaeological site on this hot day.

"We have a list of crazy countries to visit, and Sudan is one of them," said Tjerk Hempenius, who works for KLM, the Dutch airline. "People say that Sudan is the Wild West, but it is not bad at all." The two tourists said that people told them not to visit Sudan because the country was embroiled in a war. But they found Sudan easy to travel through, and they have had spectacular attractions all to themselves.

Sudan's recent history does not read particularly well on tourist brochures. In 2005, the country came out of a 20-year war between the north and the south. The return of stability has brought investment and stimulated development across the country, but a rebellion continues to rage in the western Darfur region. Arab militias known as Janjaweed, backed by the government, have clashed with rebels over land and resources in the desert. More than two million people have sought protection in squalid camps. Omar al Bashir, the president, is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.

The current conflict is isolated in the western region, but clashes have occasionally spread east. In May, a Darfurian rebel group advanced to the outskirts of Khartoum threatening the capital before the government beat them back. These types of events have largely scared off potential tourists. Most western governments have travel warnings for parts of Sudan. A tour group of 11 foreigners and eight guides was taken hostage Monday in the Egyptian desert. Yesterday, a Sudanese minister said they had been located in a no-man's-land on the border shared by Egypt, Sudan and Libya.

The United States has had a trade embargo on Sudan since 1997 because of its human rights record and alleged support of terrorism. Credit cards are useless in the country because of the sanctions, and all financial transactions are done in cash or wire transfers. Thomas Cook will not be opening a Khartoum office any time soon. Losing out are the tour guides and hotel operators who survive on the small trickle of tourists. Waleed Arafat is one of Khartoum's few tour guides. He takes mostly European visitors to the various archaeological sites.

Business has improved in the last three years, he said, but the tourism industry in Sudan is still in its infancy. "If you want to compare it to Kenya or Egypt, it's not on that level, but it is getting better," Mr Arafat said. "The main issue is political instability. The problem is there is a lack of information outside of Sudan. All people hear is Darfur. But Darfur is a long way from here." Preferring to court foreign investors and businessmen, the government has done little to attract foreign tourists to Sudan. Inside the crumbling ministry of tourism, there are desks and chairs but little else. Employees doze in their seats. The electricity is off, and the building is sweltering. Abdel Bagi Ahmed, a ministry official, knows the challenges he faces in bringing tourists to the country. Sudan needs to invest in tourism infrastructure, such as hotels and restaurants, before it can start attracting visitors, he said.

Sudan also needs to remove some bureaucratic red tape that intimidates visitors, Mr Ahmed said. It takes at least a week to obtain a visa for Sudan, and nationals of some countries are routinely denied. Once in Sudan, travel permits are required to visit many parts of the country. "We need to make the country more accessible," Mr Ahmed said. "In Egypt, you can get a visa at the airport." Mr Ahmed said he would like the government to invest more to promote Sudan as a tourist destination. The economic benefit would pay off, he said.

"Tourism provides jobs," he said. "It feeds the economy." mbrown@thenational.ae